DJELLOUL MARBROOK Reviews
Malanga Chasing Vallejo: Selected Poems by César Vallejo, New Translations and Notes by Gerard Malanga
(Three Rooms Press, New York, 2014)
A Poet for This Moment in History
The plaintive refrain of the very first poem, “The Black Heralds,” instills in us a profound trust in the subject of the chase—I don’t know! I don’t know! Neither do we, as much as we profess to know.
No better antidote to an era whose decision-making is poisoned by too much ignorant conviction exists than this humble plaint, I don’t know!
The authority of these translations from the Spanish, its thrall, is in Gerard Malanga’s selection of the poems, a selection which at once gives us the essence of Malanga’s affinity with César Abraham Vallejo Mendoza (1982-1938) and Vallejo’s humble knack of addressing the world.
There are times when Vallejo’s apostrophic language is Christ-like in its intimacy, a son reporting, questioning, remonstrating even.
One poem especially, “The Good Sense,” is stupefying in its simplicity:
There is, Mother, a place in the world they call Paris.
It’s a huge place and far away, and again very big.
My mother adjusts the collars of my coat, not because
it will snow, but in order that it may start.
This mother, then, is surely Mary, mother of God.
It is in Paris where Malanga leaves Vallejo in a 1971 closing poem of his own to which we will return.
But these two couplets invite inquiry. The second couplet offers up one of the most powerful voltas in poetry. In four lines the poem moves from a mundane recital of fact to a cosmic speculation. The snow will wait on this mother. And because it’s said so casually it’s breathtakingly effective. The snow does not wait on the entitled bankers and generalissimos, it waits on a mother adjusting the collar of a child’s coat. Where have you ever read an opinion page that expresses the current predicament of humanity so well, so austerely?
That, in fact, is key to Vallejo’s exquisite compact with us. We trust that he will not lay anything on us, will not foist an idea off as more than it is, will not con us. He’s talking to us as he would a cornice, a favorite plaza, a familiar vendor. This is his mood of the moment, not some monument built on commission, not a grand proposal. He is the least pretentious of poets, a peasant poet.
And this brings us to Malanga’s particular affinity with Vallejo. Malanga himself lives and breathes in what he sees. He is as observant as a spy from Sirius. He misses nothing, not a tic, not a wince, not a quaver. I believe he sees in Vallejo a fellow undercover agent for a better world. But there’s more to this historic connection, as Malanga tells us in his preface. He and Vallejo were outsiders looking in, men who experienced dire poverty, experienced it in fact in cold, rainy, wind-blown Paris. Malanga, because of his early successes and relationship with The Factory, Andy Warhol’s artistic collider, is typically taken as an insider, but when you read his poems you recognize no insider could have viewed the inside so dispassionately. He may have been an insider, but his photographer’s empathy is always with the outsider. I’ve watched and listened to him read, and he’s more interested in his audience than in reading to it.
I’m not fluent in Spanish, but it’s clear Malanga has wisely chosen not to use rhyme where it might distract the reader from Vallejo’s lyricism. In the original, of course, it works, but in English it might seem a conceit or an artifact.
Vallejo’s prosody is manifold, but even in his free verse there is a pronounced formality. In fact, his free verse supports the case I’ve long argued that free verse is a misnomer because it seems to suggest ill-disciplined verse, whereas I contend that when practiced in full conscience it is more intellectually and artistically demanding than metrical verse. It does not rely on convention. Its meter and demeanor derive from the immediacy of the poet’s encounter with recognition and epiphany.
Listen, for example, to the meter in this stanza from “A Pillar Tolerating Solaces:”
Perhaps, do I ignore the year of this day,
the hate of this love, the tablets of this forehead?
Do you ignore that this afternoon costs days?
Do you ignore that you should never say “never” on your knees?
There is something profoundly poignant in Malanga’s long pursuit of Vallejo’s significance. The more Malanga pursued Vallejo the more relevant Vallejo became to his pursuer’s time. Malanga is in some ways a quintessential insider. His photographs of the famously creative are iconic, in some ways more famous than their subjects. But in his later years, as if he had by hex slipped dimensions, he has come to stand outside looking in, remembering what it was like to be inside but holding himself to a passionate and hermetic project of alien observation. His poems have deepened, broadened, and yet at the same time they have acquired a colloquial familiarity that might be traced back to Jules Laforgue. It’s in the short, tragic life of Laforgue that I think Malanga’s alchemy with Vallejo originates. Laforgue (1860-87) is a parent of modernism, especially the symbolist movement. Vallejo shares with poets like Arthur Rimbaud an ability to find the elixir that ennobles plain speech, and in Vallejo deceptively plain speech often constitutes a kind of hermetic seal. Jesus himself could be said to be part of the hermetic tradition, and his life is never far from the Communist Vallejo’s mind. This is not an inconsiderable opening. We have witnessed the fall of systems that purported to be communistic but were in fact oligarchic and have been supplanted by overtly oligarchic states, and this witness has forced us to consider how radical, how threatening the Christian message is. Churches have come into being to defend the patriarchal oligarchy from the Christian message by theologizing it.
I’ve studied Malanga’s photographs almost as much as his poetry, and it has occasionally led to the clique of famous people so palpably conscious of their fame they could be called their own claque. But there Malanga often is, beautiful in both his youth and his old age, but never quite one of them, never quite part of the group and yet clearly in possession of the appropriate papers. He’s always looking somewhere else, some place no one else sees—Vallejo, for example—perhaps the indispensable virtue of a great photographer and poet.
He shares this with Vallejo, and in the closing poem, “Vision 1938 Paris,” written in 1971, Malanga foresees his own poetic future as a man who studies others as if his own life depends on it.
This man was living in the center between giving and taking,
between distance and nearness,
between old age and youth.
I think Malanga has lived there for a very long time. And Vallejo too.
César Abraham Vallejo Mendoza was born in a remote northern Peruvian village, Santiago de Chuco. His grandmothers were Chimu Indians. His grandfathers were Spanish priests. Like Malanga, he mingled easily with the intelligentsia, in his case in Lima, Paris and Madrid, but unlike Malanga, he was hounded by censorious authorities.
Like Sergei Yesenin and other Russian poets he was wounded to the core by the social and economic injustices he witnessed. In Spain he joined the Community Party. His life and his poems are redolent of Jesus’s hair-raising scourge of callous privilege. And it is his lyrical indignation that makes him the poet of this moment in this book of exquisitely selected and executed translations that would in a better attuned society, a society not drugged by the media, be front-page news.
Djelloul Marbrook is the author of two poetry books, Far from Algiers (2008, Kent State University Press, winner of the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and the 2010 International Book Award in poetry) and Brushstrokes and glances (2010, Deerbrook Editions)—both reviewed in Prairie Schooner. His poems have been published by American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Taos Poetry Journal, Orbis (UK), From the Fishouse, Oberon, The Same, Reed, Fledgling Rag, Poets Against the War, Poemeleon, Van Gogh's Ear Anthology, Atticus Review, Deep Water Literary Journal, and Daylight Burglary, among others.
He is also the author of five books of fiction: Mean Bastards Making Nice (Leaky Boot Press, UK, 2014), Guest Boy (2012, Mira Publishing House CLC, Leeds, UK), Saraceno (2012, Bliss Plot Press, NY), Artemisia's Wolf (2011, Prakash Books, India), and Alice Miller's Room (1999, OnlineOriginals.com, UK). He won the 2008 Literal Latté fiction prize (http://www.literal-latte.com/2008/11/artists-hill/), for “Artists Hill,” an excerpt from Crowds of One (forthcoming in 2014 from Mira), Book 2 in the Guest Boy trilogy. His short fiction publishers include Literal Latté, Orbis (UK), Breakfast All Day (UK), Prima Materia (NY) and Potomac Review (MD).
A retired newspaper editor and Navy veteran, he lives in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley with his wife Marilyn. He serves as a poetry peer reviewer for Four Quarters Magazine and maintains a lively Facebook and Twitter presence. Web pages: